(The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters, please subscribe.)
Originally published on November 9, 2019.
Installment #12: “Ain’t No Cure For the Wintertime Blues, Part 1”
No matter how hard we worked to keep it from happening, it’s over. No matter how hard we fought, winter is on the way to the Northern Hemisphere, and with it the dreaded holiday season. It’s worse than the flu. It’s worse than dry and overcooked turkey. It’s worse than working retail for a sadistic corporation that gets off on forcing its peons to have to listen to “Santa Baby” over and over for eight to ten hours a day. Even for those blessedly spared butter cookies and animatronic reindeer and Dawn of the Dead cosplay at the local Walmart, who avoid cable just so they don’t have to hear about the latest Hallmark Channel holiday movie, there’s one thing we can’t avoid on this half of the planet, and that’s the end of the growing season. That’s it. There’s nothing to be done other than wait four to six months for the days to get longer.
I admit that I don’t mind the concept of winter, in moderation. For the last 40 years, Texas made this so much better, and surviving the blistering summers was always so much more tolerable with the promise of winter out here. Four decades ago this month, my family made the trek from the south side of Chicago to the northern suburbs of Dallas right after Thanksgiving, and the disconnect was stunning. The end of 1979 in Chicago wasn’t promising meters of snowfall the way the year had started, but the last of the household goods went into the moving truck just as a patchy snow started as the temperature dropped below freezing, and it wasn’t the good kind of snow that could be used for snowballs and snowmen, either. This was God’s dandruff, that filled hollows in the ground and not much else, and it signaled nothing other than “it only gets worse from here.” For nearly the length of Illinois, the snow followed, with overcast skies preventing it from melting or even ablating away. You can imagine how a kid raised disturbingly close to the 45th Parallel felt about getting to Dallas about three days later and stepping out of a car on a December day without needing to put on two coats and a hat. Comparatively, the grass was still green, and nights only got chilly enough to warrant a jacket, not a full parka and boots. December in Texas? Heck, this was the end of August in northern Michigan, and when snow finally arrived about a month later, it melted off within a day. It was GLORIOUS.
(This isn’t to say that Dallas doesn’t get cold, too. December 1983 brought a week-long cold wave so bad that the Gulf of Mexico around Galveston froze for the first time in recorded history and probably the first time since the last great glacial advance, and marine biologists still pore through the breakdowns of the species and numbers of fish killed that collected in huge piles once the ice melted. A week-long freeze and ice storm in 1985 helped local authorities discover that Texas didn’t have a law against driving snowmobiles on state highways because nobody thought it was necessary. Oh, and then there’s the lowest temperature ever recorded in Dallas, all of one degree F on Christmas Eve 1989, that I remember because of the sheer thrill of moving a movie poster-sized sheet of glass down an ice-covered hill on foot, all to make sure that my then-girlfriend had her birthday present that day…and then watching that sheet crack from thermal stress when I got it inside. It’s just that this doesn’t happen often, at least compared to six months of carving lawn furniture out of blocks of frozen nitrogen in Wisconsin.)
For those of us needing green, it’s rough this time of the year. The outdoor plants are dead, dying, or pining for the fijords, and any Venus flytraps and Sarracenia pitcher plants are either in dormancy or heading toward a long winter sleep. Indoors, the plants with access to sunlight are still slowing down and prepping for the long dark. (If your plants are kept purely under artificial lights, cutting back on their photoperiods over the winter and then lengthening the number of hours they get by about mid-March won’t guarantee an enthusiastic blooming period, but it can’t hurt.) The good news is that you don’t have to stop working with plants: you just have to pivot. Some of the many things you can do now while your plants are resting: Clean your tools and pots.
Remember last summer, when you were fighting off giant tomato hornworms and swearing that you were going to clean off caterpillar ichor from your prize Felco pruners when summer was done? Now’s the time to get out all of your tools used throughout the year, along with an old towel, and set them all out on the towel. You’re going to need distractions, so don’t be afraid to pull out headphones or put something on the television that you can binge while you’re scraping caterpillar guts. (For most gardening people with Netflix, I highly recommend The Great British Baking Show; for us carnivore people, I recommend Daybreak or Lucifer.) Besides a dishtub full of warm soapy water, you should also have:
A bottle of isopropyl alcohol.
A bottle of window cleaner.
A bottle of Goo-Gone or a comparable brand of sticker and label remover (as if such a thing exists).
A bottle of hand lotion.
Spare rags AND paper towels.
At least one old toothbrush.
A bottle of light machine oil and a bottle of WD-40.
Disposable gloves of your preference. (Try to go for nitrile over latex, for reasons that will soon become obvious.)
Optional: A whetstone or sharpening stone, preferably with a fine abrasive surface.
Some of the items on the list have purposes that aren’t immediately obvious, so let’s go through them. The isopropyl alcohol and Goo-Gone are for labels, stickers, and other stick-ons that are peeling free, cracking, or otherwise getting in the way. (The isopropyl alcohol is specifically for labels that use adhesive resistant to water or ethyl alcohol This is also something handy to remember when cleaning liquor or wine bottles, by the way, because the label paper may come free with soaking in water but the adhesive won’t.) The bottle of window cleaner is for the occasional glue or glop that needs ammonia for removal. The gloves are because you really don’t want your hands soaking in isopropyl alcohol or window cleaner for long periods without some kind of protection, and the hand lotion is an additional level of protection inside the gloves. (It also makes your hands smell nice, which they definitely won’t if you’ve been bathing in Goo-Gone for an entire binge watch of Daybreak.) The reason why you want nitrile gloves instead of latex ones is that latex tends to be attacked by the light machine oil you’re going to use, and they tend to be more tolerant of the other chemicals you’re using. Finally, the light machine oil and the WD-40 are for lubrication: WD-40 is a penetrating solvent that’s incredibly good at loosening up seized or rusted metal parts, but it’s not an actual lubricant, so its use has to be followed up with light oil.
Two clarifications: the reason why the above list includes “spare rags AND paper towels” is that you’re going to come across substances, particularly label adhesives and oil, that you’re not going to want on rags that you plan to reuse or, worse, wash in your home washing machine. (If you’re the sort of monster who goes to a laundromat to wash items like this so you don’t mess up your own machine, several concert T-shirts, several dress shirts, and I are coming over to have a really long talk with your kneecaps.) Paper towels may be overused, but between washer and dryer abuse and the potential for spontaneous combustion, they’re a great way to collect glop that needs to leave the premises right then and there. However, there are cleaning and scrubbing activities that paper towels can’t handle without shredding and disintegrating, so take into account your needs.
And the sharpening stone? I know it’s hard to believe, but a disturbing number of people assume that the current sharpness of secateurs, scissors, grafting knives, hedge clippers, and lawn mower blades is what it is, with no option for improving the situation. Codswallop. Just as a cut from a sharp knife heals faster than one from a dull knife, cutting living plant material of all sorts heals faster with a sharp blade because the blade doesn’t crush or mangle the tissue at the cut. Unless you’ve really let your blades slide or you’re cutting up metal with your Felco pruners, a sharpening stone with a fine grit should handle all of your needs: I personally use an Arkansas whetstone that I purchased in the late 1980s, and still puts a precision edge on everything from scalpels to putty knives.
Okay, now that you have plenty to do, get to cleaning. You’ll need all of this ready to go by the time you get the next installment, available soon.
In other developments, the promise of stirring up the Triffid Ranch social media environment starts at the end of the year, with the shutdown of both personal Facebook account and the Triffid Ranch Facebook page. This wasn’t an easy decision, but recent changes in Facebook’s algorithm have made it impossible for people to get Page postings unless they’re boosted, and that is becoming increasingly more expensive with less of a return. If you know someone trying to keep up via Facebook who hasn’t read anything in a while, that’s why: the Twitter and Instagram accounts (both “txtriffidranch”) are staying up, but the first act of January 2020 is to shut down the Facebook account for good. (And feel free to forward this newsletter to anybody who might have an interest, because retro media is the new future. At this rate, it may be time to turn this newsletter into a zine.)
One of these days, the To Be Read pile beside my bed is going to collapse and kill me in my sleep, but that’s only because of so many choices. However, two particulars stand out: the latest Spectrum Awards collection of fantastic art (because after a quarter-century, it just keeps getting better and better), and the new book The Making of Alien, which goes into detail on the making of the classic film, including a lot of the conflicts and command decisions that almost imploded the production over and over. Both are available in oversized hardcovers, so if you don’t feel like Netflix binging, these are great distractions while cleaning your gardening tools.
It’s been a rough few months for everyone, so I leave you with an introduction, if you’re not familiar already, with Angel Metro. Just trust me on this. Go download the latest album by whatever service you prefer, but give it a good stout listen before the next newsletter comes out.